Our Own Lives

I don’t know if you read Oliver Sacks’ op-ed last Thursday in the New York Times where he revealed that he has terminal liver cancer. The piece was of particular interest to me as someone who survived liver cancer via a liver transplant only 9 months ago and has lost 2 family members to the disease in the past 13 months.

I think it should be of interest to everyone because we are all terminal. To paraphrase the title of a humorous and ironic song by Hank Williams Sr., none of us will get out of this world alive.

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert
Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

I must confess that before this I was not too familiar with the life and work of Oliver Sacks, who is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. I knew that his 1973 memoir Awakenings about his work with patients suffering from the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which I enjoyed. And that he wrote another book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I have read neither and had to go to Wikipedia to learn more about him.

It’s not necessary to know his life story to be moved by Sacks’ reflections. They are poignant and inspirational. The valuable takeaways for me were the appreciation he expresses for his life and the sense of detachment he has found. Both are indispensable to Buddhist practice, and even though some mistakenly think they are mutually exclusive, they are not.

Buddhism teaches that human life is precious, and that is reason enough to be grateful for the blessing of life. When you face death and survive, appreciation for life seems to blossom naturally. It is a shame to wait until you have a crisis for it to unfold.

In regards to detachment, Sacks writes,

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment . . .”

That is the kind of detachment Buddhism encourages us to develop, but again, while there is still time to watch the news, pay attention to the world, to argue, to forgive, love and cry. We form attachments to so many things – desire, material possessions, even our own sufferings – and it is vital that we learn to let go. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”

There is not much more to say about the piece. It is called “My Own Life.” It could have been titled “Our Own Lives,” as it speaks to and for us all. Please read it. Here is the link:

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer February 19, 2015

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